I think it’s pretty nearly accurate to say that the Twilight series (is that what it’s properly called?) is currently the biggest entertainment powerhouse in America. The movie that opened yesterday (I think) will probably gross hundreds of millions of dollars this weekend alone. The books have sold twenty million copies in the states. I haven’t boarded an airplane in three months without seeing someone carrying one of the books. And that’s like four airplanes. So yeah. In case you’ve been living under a very large rock, this proves it: Twilight is huge.
It’s also a piss-poor book, from what I’ve seen. The characters, outside of the two you’ve heard of and maybe two or three others, are all totally disposable. The narrator dismisses them offhand and attributes to them a range of emotions and behavior patterns that doesn’t quite measure up to the mature autonomy of most cattle. Her friends and parents are all total wastes of type.
I’m sort of glad they’re included in the book, though, because without them, the narrator might try to spend more time describing her world, which would be bad, because the world of Forks through the eyes of Bella is not only boring as hell, but it barely even exists; the whole place is only a relation to her teenage angst-filled state of mind. I mean, compare the playground scene at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to any scene where Bella is at school and Edward isn’t around. There’s no comparison. The former uses peripheral characters with a vivid setting to compile a witty and nearly sympathy-inducing vignette. The latter is something like this: “I went to school. I sat with my friends, whom I don’t really like and view with total condescension even though I’m just a whiny teenager. I hate gym class ’cause I fall down. Then I drove home.” This is, to put it bluntly, pathetic. A decent editor should have chopped out nearly everything in the book before the vampire plot takes hold, because none of it is remotely interesting or even avoids being totally nauseating.
So Stephanie Meyer isn’t exactly a visionary here. Her book is not good literature. My debate partner picked up the book, read for about three minutes, put it down and remarked, “It’s pretty poorly written.” And she’s totally right. But that doesn’t really stop Twilight from being enjoyable. That’s not why I hate Twilight. And that’s not why Twilight is dangerous. The answer to that question lies a little deeper.
From the first pages of Twilight, we get to know Bella Swan pretty well. This doesn’t take long. Her parent situation is rough. She’s moving to a small town where not much happens and she doesn’t have any friends. The friends she does have, as already mentioned, are portrayed as total wastes of oxygen. She’s mad sometimes, and sad sometimes, and insecure pretty much all the time. This is poor writing, as a character should always be either realistic or likable, and she’s not really either, but if that’s the part the author wanted to write because that’s the best story she thought she could make, okay.
But is that why? I doubt it. Today's teenage kids have spent the last few years on Simple Plan and Good Charlotte (”look at my clothes/all black/look at my life/all black”) and, when that became uncool, My Chemical Romance and Dashboard Confessional. (Hell, even all of Kelly Clarkson’s major hits are about being alone!) We revel in being alone and relationally challenged. We revel in perceiving most of the events in our lives as trivial and unfulfilling. Either Ms. Meyer empathizes with that, in which case she should probably grow up a bit more, or else she wanted to make a book that would sell and thus chose a postmodern teenager as her main character. And this is where Twilight becomes an object of contempt.
Bella doesn’t just find her life boring. Bella finds her existence meaningless. She spends every single moment of the first six chapters of this novel engaged in self-deprecation and self-loathing. The whole book is based on the premise that Bella, while described as a charming, intelligent, reasonably kind, good-looking person, needs to escape from herself. The implication comes up again and again that there is nothing special or interesting about her, despite the fact that she, by all accounts, would be a pretty amazing girl. She views everything about herself and everything about the life that she lives as totally worthless.
And Edward Cullen is her transcendence. Every existentialist needs some way to transcend. For Sartre, it was art. For Einstein, it was scientific understanding. For Bella Swan, it’s getting Edward Cullen to like her, to rescue her from boredom and self-hatred. This may not have been totally intended, but with the one-sided writing behind everything but Edward, and given Bella’s intense hatred of everything else that comprises her life, readers see that Edward Cullen is more and more the only thing Bella Swan has to live for.
Fuck that shit.
Bella is beautiful and vibrant. Bella is talented and intelligent (a scene in science class proves this). She’s a pretty solid friend, she’s fun, and she’s awkward in an endearing way. Fuck any system of values that says transcendence of her unhappiness must depend on the opinion of anyone else. Her life has value without a self-destructive overarching love narrative, and she honestly doesn’t seem to believe this. She makes a one-dimensional character out of herself when really she’s the one we ought to be interested in, regardless of whether or not she dates someone who wants to slit her throat with his teeth.
And it’s sad, because I wouldn’t give a damn if it was just about a story. But it isn’t. Whether through calculated posturing for sales or through a drastic misunderstanding of the value of teenage kids, Ms. Meyer has created societal archetypes from her characters to you and I. This is nothing new from fantasy novel fads; look at the “Which Harry Potter Character Are You?” quizzes for proof. But those novels created heroes, and, what’s more, heroes not for what they could do but for who they were. Harry Potter isn’t a hero because he can cast Expelliarmus pretty fast. He’s a hero because he’s brave, loyal, and merciful. We feel like we could be Harry Potter, because in our better moments, we pretty much already are — only without wands.
But the Twilight archetype is of a much different nature. There is no Bella archetype without her “wand,” without her love story…at least, none that we want to embody. The Bella archetype without the story is one of hatred and escapism, one that puts oneself down and tears oneself apart emotionally day after day. And it’s one that people see as descriptive of them. That’s why Twilight is dangerous: it celebrates a new kind of teenage girl, one who doesn’t have any value in herself. One who can’t see the beauty underneath the circumstances, so she becomes an emotional prostitute, using love as a desperate try for security and meaning.
I am Edward Cullen. Or, at least, I was this summer. My “Bella” told me so once. She said she was Bella…stupid, awkward, boring…and that I was her Edward. What she was saying was, in effect and more concretely put, that a combination of fucked-up self-image and a boring small-town, homeschooled, dreary mess of a daily life had left her with a meaningless existence, and that I was her transcendence.
This is why I haven’t thrown away Twilight. In some respects, I still need it. I’m one of those stupid romantic people who see symbols in things, and for some reason, giving up on Twilight now feels like I’m giving up on my relationship with her, which has dwindled away to pretty much nothing. So I keep it on my shelf and occasionally take it down for something to say in emails I won’t send, because that’s the only thing we have in common anymore…so it’s the only thing I can cling to.
But that very fact proves that Twilight is total shit. I did not deserve this person at all. She was miles, light-years out of my league. She’s creative, intelligent, considerate, sensitive, and drop-dead fucking gorgeous. I am generally a hyper-self-aware, distant, selfish, oft-arrogant, prosaic, only reasonably attractive (and that might be overstating it) prick. My only particularly good quality in whatever it was exactly that we shared was that I saw how great she is. That shouldn’t have been nearly enough. But because of the Twilight archetype (or perhaps in reflection of it), that was all that it took. She needed me, and she shouldn’t have. She is more meaningful then I could ever know, let alone mandate. It sickens me that she didn’t realize it.
Fortunately, things have seemingly worked out okay. She found her way out — college just far enough from home, ironically a measure with which she credited me at the time — and she doesn’t need me anymore. I don’t regret that at all. Like John Cusack after Catherine Zeta-Jones breaks up with him in High Fidelity, I know some people are just too good for some other people, and not only did I not deserve her, I was a fool to think I could ever be right for her. That’s life, and everything’s fine, I think.
But the tragedy is that she’s not alone. Many archetypal teenage girls presumably fall for archetypal teenage escapes to get out of themselves. They can’t accept who they are or see that who they are is beautiful. And that is Ms. Meyer’s fault, because as long as this bullshit existential theory is propagated and reinforced, amazing people will continue to believe they aren’t intrinsically worth a damn. We need works of art that can stand against this and break the cycle for the sake of the youth of today and tomorrow. And this series is not one of them.